This week I’m publishing the first of a series prompted by recent events in connection with Hurricane Sandy, the most devastating storm in North American history. As usual mainstream media makes no attempt to relate this event to global climate change. I wrote this essay some months ago, connecting the dots but adding a third critical element: our attachment to landscape through mythology and ways we can use it to move forward in the 21st century.
1. Mythic Landscape as Blank (?) Canvas
So far it looks like the 21st century is the Irish Book of Invasions all over again—one battle after another. The battle against GMOs. The battle against global climate change. The battle against the destruction of the environment. Every week my inbox is flooded with well-meaning NGOs wanting me to sign a petition, donate, or pass it on to my Facebook ‘friends.’ It’s mentally exhausting, constantly beating back the corporate hordes. It chafes at the spirit, corrodes the bulwarks that keep despair at bay. But if the ancient Book of Invasions—or as it’s known in Irish, the Lebor Gebala Erenn—is anything to go by, the invaders in Armani suits are just the latest installment in the long human saga. 1
For the ancient Irish—whoever they were—it was one wave after another of foreign invaders. The Norsemen. The Normans. The Anglos. To mention only the billboard players. No wonder the core of Celtic mythology—at least what we’ve inherited of it—is a history of invasions. Although it slips into the realm of myth, ‘mythical’ is not synonymous with ‘untrue.’ Myths are allegories that tell truths about the human condition. The Book of Invasions is an elegant cycle of allegories about just that. The line between myth and legend is often blurry. At the core of many of the world’s great myths lie historical truths that began as legendary stories and shape-shifted from there into myth. Either way, it’s the power of human imagination to preserve the spiritual essence of an event by blowing it up for the ‘big screen.’ The Irish are masters at this technique—their landscape is thoroughly imbued with story.
Growing up Canadian in a northern BC company town, a kid with glasses and a preference for books over hockey, I had no sense at all of the mythic in the landscape. We lived in the miasma of the boom era ‘instant town’ established by single resource extraction industries, in this case lumber. Mackenzie, BC had only been founded in the mid ’60s. My father was posted there by the BC Forest Service when I was in third grade. My geeky, bookish appearance made me an instant target for the other boys, who were merciless and brutal. Because I didn’t fit in with the white kids, my best buddy was a Stoney Indian named Billy. Billy’s parents were pretty thoroughly Westernized, a useful survival strategy at the time. My father had taken me to the Ingenika reservation so I’d seen indigenous culture ground under the heels of government and booze. The strange thing was, I don’t recall hearing any of their stories. They may understandably not have wanted to share them with us, though they considered my father a friend. And our public school curriculum certainly wasn’t offering any lessons in the tales of a conquered people. It was still stuck on ‘The Sun Never Sets on the Glorious British Empire.’ We learned more British history than Canadian.
Conquerors understand well the power of naming. This is why, when ancient holy sites are turned to the service of a new religion, their names are always changed. Even the landscape must be named to reflect the culture of the invaders. But because we knew so little of Canadian history, much less that of the aboriginal culture that had preceded it on this landscape for thousands of years, the new names we gave the mountains, forests and rivers were still empty vessels. It was as if the landscape was blank. Partly it may have been that even in this frontier outpost of British culture buried in a northern conifer forest, we couldn’t escape the North American dream of the ‘blank slate.’ There’s something appealing about landscape as a blank slate. I can recall many times looking out over a mountain range with my father, immersed in its silent intensity, its unwritten ‘IS-ness.’ A kind of magisterial emptiness, free of language.
But ultimately, beyond the warm and fuzzy of childhood memories, that blankness merely becomes hollow. On a spiritual level you realize your connection to the land is tenuous. This is the role of myth—not just a distorted history or a teaching tale, but a means of connecting us, not only with the mountains, forests and rivers, but with all those who have gone before us on this landscape. We realize we are part of a tradition, a continuum that stretches into the ancient past. We are part of a landscape, often the one we were born into. Much of the angst of North American culture may lie at the rootlessness so many of us feel here, even those of us whose ancestors arrived with the first colonists. We are still building the mythology peculiar to ourselves on this landscape. Like a stratum of earth, it takes millennia of layering communal memory in story to root a culture. The deeper the layers, the deeper the connection.
American writer Barry Lopez was onto this 30 years ago when he began writing about landscape as story. He wrote of both the interior and an exterior landscape we all live within, and how a synthesis of the two becomes fundamental to our individual identity. But our interior landscape—“the speculations, intuitions, and formal ideas we refer to as ‘mind’”—withers without meaningful interaction with Nature—the exterior landscape. “The external landscape is the one we see—not only the line and color of the land and its shading at different times of the day, but also its plants and animals in season, its weather, its geology, the record of its climate and evolution.” 2
In other words, a symbiotic relationship exists between interior and exterior landscapes, and we understand it by learning about the relationships inherent in each. “One learns a landscape finally not by knowing the name or identity of everything in it, but by perceiving the relationships in it,” Lopez wrote. “The shape and character of these relationships in a person’s thinking, I believe, are deeply influenced by where on this earth one goes, what one touches, the patterns one observes in nature. The interior landscape responds to the character and subtlety of the exterior one: the shape of the individual mind is affected by land as it is by genes.” 3
Lopez here is bridging the science of epigenetics, now being taught in the field of Early Childhood Education and greatly advanced by Canadian scientist Dr. Fraser Mustard. Epigenetics could be said to be the ‘software’ part of DNA’s ‘hardware,’ intergenerational changes influenced by family behavioural patterns. In this way, not just physical but cultural attributes may be passed down. Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious, based on his study of world mythology, gave us the theoretical framework. No surprise then that generations living on a landscape would psychologically be shaped by it. “Each individual, further, undertakes to order his interior landscape according to the exterior landscape,” concludes Lopez. “To succeed in this means to achieve a balanced state of mental health.” 4
As many First Nations teachers have said, landscape is imbued with the presence of ancestors. To know their stories is to know the land. And since we Europeans arrived, we have been adding another mythic layer to that landscape. Just as in Ireland, where successive waves of invaders each added their layer to the cultural consciousness. We finally recognize First Nations mythology as on a par with our own—all of it an irrepressible part of Canadian identity. “Read myths,” urged Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth, with PBS TV journalist Bill Moyers. “Read other peoples’ myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts—but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive.” 5
SOURCES & NOTES
1. Patrick Weston Joyce (1827–1914), a Trinity College scholar, was the first to translate the Lebor Gebala Erenn from Irish Gaelic for a general audience. Prior to Joyce publishing it as Old Celtic Romances in 1879, there had only existed scholarly translations. He thus pre-dated by a decade the Irish Literary Revival launched by William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory. His clear, straightforward English translation provides material if not inspiration for the movement. Yeats and Douglas Hyde formed the Irish Literary Society in 1882. Yeats published Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry in 1888. The Victorian Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson used Joyce’s translation for his poem The Voyage of Maeldune.
2. Barry Lopez, ‘Story at Anaktuvuk Pass,’ Harper’s Magazine, December 1984, p. 50.
3. Barry Lopez, ‘Story at Anaktuvuk Pass,’ ibid., p. 50.
4. Barry Lopez, ‘Story at Anaktuvuk Pass,’ ibid., p. 51.
5. Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, Anchor/Doubleday Books, New York, 1988, p. 5.